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Tillis appears to reinforce question about COVID-19 death toll

Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump, Biden barnstorm the Midwest | Texas sets statewide turnout record | Trump, Tillis trail in NC North Carolina Democrat Cunningham leads Tillis by 10 points in new poll Georgia Republican Drew Ferguson tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (R-N.C.) on Thursday appeared to reinforce doubts about the total number of Americans who have died from COVID-19 after a woman called into a virtual town hall saying many of the fatalities include deaths "from things like heart attacks and slip and falls."

His comments come as others in the GOP, including President TrumpDonald John TrumpStephen Miller: Trump to further crackdown on illegal immigration if he wins US records 97,000 new COVID-19 cases, shattering daily record Biden leads Trump by 8 points nationally: poll MORE, Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump, Biden barnstorm the Midwest | Texas sets statewide turnout record | Trump, Tillis trail in NC Oct. 30: Where Trump and Biden will be campaigning Ernst holds narrow lead over Democratic challenger in Iowa: poll MORE (Iowa) and Rep. Roger MarshallRoger W. MarshallTrump holds 7-point lead over Biden in Kansas: poll Kelly raises .7 million in third quarter for Arizona Senate bid Senate GOP's campaign arm releases first ad targeting Bollier in Kansas MORE (Kan.), have downplayed the extent of the coronavirus pandemic by pointing to a conspiracy theory that the number of deaths is much lower.

Tillis, who like Ernst and Marshall is facing a tight reelection race, told the caller in a virtual town hall that she was “absolutely right” when she said the 200,000 deaths from COVID-19 really include deaths “from things like heart attacks and slip and falls," just because the people "have COVID in their system."

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“You’re making a very, very important point,’’ Tillis said. “In fact, we understand that 95 percent of the deaths were co-morbidities," he added.

According to Tillis's remarks, first reported by Salon, health officials are using the higher numbers "to encourage people to use social distancing and try and end the spread of the virus."

"But I think when the final accounting is done you are going to see, sadly, that the number of people who died may have died from an underlying condition at the same time that they had COVID," Tillis said.

"Now the question is — and what will be difficult to prove out is — but for COVID, would they have had that heart attack? The complication with diabetes?" Tillis said.

A spokesperson for Tillis pushed back on the idea that the senator was doubting the accuracy of the death count, noting that Tillis "has full trust in the scientific community."

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"Senator Tillis ... noted the CDC statistic that 95% of the 202,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. were people who had comorbidities, and made the explicit point that COVID-19 has caused the deaths of Americans who may have otherwise survived with their underlying health issues," spokesman Andrew Romeo said.

The discredited theory about the inflated death toll comes from a misreading of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) webpage stating that the coronavirus was listed as the sole cause for only 6 percent of deaths attributed to the virus. 

However, that does not mean the other 94 percent of people did not die from the coronavirus; instead, it means that another factor directly caused by the coronavirus, such as respiratory failure, was also listed or that there was an underlying condition that is not necessarily fatal on its own but heightens the risks from the coronavirus.

But the 6 percent figure has been seized to minimize the impact of a virus that kills more than 1,000 Americans every day.

Earlier this month, Trump retweeted a post from user Mel Q, who is a believer in the QAnon conspiracy theory, saying only about 9,000 people had “actually” died from the coronavirus. Twitter later removed the tweet for violating its rules.

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Ernst also drew fire for saying she is “so skeptical” of case and death counts from the coronavirus, later adding, according to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, “They’re thinking there may be 10,000 or less deaths that were actually singularly COVID-19 ... I’m just really curious. It would be interesting to know that.”

Marshall, who is a doctor, also pointed to the 6 percent theory in a Facebook post. It was eventually removed by Facebook for spreading misinformation about the pandemic.

Health experts have said they are dismayed by the prominence of the conspiracy theory, and have sought to correct the record.

Anthony FauciAnthony FauciRegeneron halts trial of COVID-19 antibody drug in sickest hospitalized patients The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Pollsters stir debate over Trump numbers Donald Trump Jr. claims US coronavirus death rate at 'almost nothing' MORE, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said earlier this month that just because someone with COVID-19 has an underlying health condition doesn't mean they didn't die from the virus.

“That does not mean that someone who has hypertension or diabetes who dies of COVID didn’t die of COVID-19 — they did — so the numbers that you've been hearing, the 180,000-plus deaths, are real deaths from COVID-19," Fauci said.

This story was updated at 7:12 p.m.